Authors: Frank Tuttle
“Spirits ever wrong?” I asked.
Mister Smith chuckled. “All the time,” he said. “But they mean well.”
I shut up and watched the grinning devil kites until the sun got fat and sank.
A chill hit the air. My Troll warriors belched catfish and scratched and sat up, all business.
“It was fun, gentlemen,” I said. “All of it. But we’ve got work to do.”
“We have shared a meal, shared a day,” said Mister Chin.
“We thank you,” said Mister Jones.
I stood and brushed grass off my butt. “You’re welcome, Walking Stones, the honor was mine,” I said, hoping that would suffice. Their words had the sound of some Walking Stone ritual, but it wasn’t one I knew.
Mister Smith yawned again and grumbled something, and after I pointed them toward the River we headed out.
The walk would take us until well after dark.
We’d be at the waterfront by Curfew.
And then, we’d see if Mister Smith’s well-meaning spirits had improved their foresight any since the War.
Night fell. Curfew fell. Drizzle fell. We were so close to the Brown River I could smell the cattle-barges through the stench of slaughter houses and paper mills.
Trolls can shut their nostrils, and hold them shut. I hadn’t known that. They were doing it now, except for Mister Smith, who kept his nose open to sniff for half-dead.
About half past the tenth bell, the drizzle became a downpour. That kept the Watch off us—they might wander around with the half-dead, but you won’t catch them getting wet—and left the night so dark and loud I could have paraded twenty Trolls with flags down the street and no one would have noticed.
So we found a burned-out building with two walls and a rubble heap standing and tried to spot half-dead through the storm. I’d wrapped a string around my nightstick and put it around my neck: as long as the stick touched my skin, night was day in shades of sickly green. The Haverlock warehouse was just ahead, all shadow and gloom.
Across town, down at the Square, the big old bells rang out eleven times. Nothing moved on our street. A barge drifted by our backs, a few lamps guttering, stinking of the mound of garbage that it bore. Mister Smith slammed his nostrils shut until the wind shifted.
Time passed. Then the bells on the Square boomed once, marking the half-hour.
My back ached and rain was running down it and no hat in the world can keep a driving rain out of your eyes.
“I’ve had it, boys,” I said. “Early or not, it’s time to go and knock on a door. Shall we?”
They rose. I watched them tower up and up and took what comfort I could from their bulk.
“We go forth as one,” boomed Mister Smith.
“Our cause is just,” said Mister Chin.
“Our hearts are brave,” said Mister Jones.
“My ass is wet,” I said.
We walked out in the rain. The street was empty. The warehouse was dark.
Mama Hog’s bracelet got hot. Not hot enough to burn me, but hot enough get my attention. I swatted it and yanked on it, but I swear it pulled itself tighter.
Mister Smith saw. His claws came out, and he barked something to the other Misters.
Dark, windowless warehouses loomed around us like canyon walls. The rain sleeted down sideways, soaking man and Trolls alike. Up close, I noticed that water slid off the Misters without wetting their fur.
Hut two three four. We’d fallen into step, gods know why—too much Army time, on both sides, I guess.
A light flared in the double-doors ahead. The window wasn’t glass, just a slitted square of close-set iron slats, but I could see a silhouette beyond it. It might have been Liam, or it might have been the Regent; no way to tell but one.
I stopped. The Misters stopped with me. “You boys keep an eye out,” I said. “And beat it back to the mountains if I’m not back by the twelfth bell.”
“We will not abandon you, Finder,” said Mister Smith. “We came for what is ours. We leave with the bones of our kin, and we leave with you. Tell them.”
The light in the door flickered and guttered like a single candle. Mama Hog’s bracelet felt like it was trying to crawl around widdershins on my wrist.
I pulled down my hat and marched to that door.
It opened before I reached it. Somebody had oiled the hinges, because it opened without a sound.
I stepped inside. The candle sported a pale hand and part of an arm; it beckoned me forward and drifted down a dark hall.
I followed. I’d gone maybe ten feet when my candle-bearer reached a waist-high basket and put the candle on the lid. Then he vanished, quiet as the ghost he probably was.
I walked to the basket. My own footsteps crunched and squeaked, loud in the tomblike silence. I picked up the candle and lifted the lid.
There, wrapped in red velvet, was a head.
His pale, dry eyes rolled, seeking mine, meeting them. His mouth made empty words I could not read.
I was just about to say something—what, I’m not sure—when the candle flame puffed out, the door behind me slammed shut and a bag with a cord sewn into its mouth fell over my head.
The cord went tight. I kicked back behind me and flailed with my fists and none of that stopped the darkness from dragging me under.
Something slapped me.
Again, a slap, and a torrent of cold sour water. I coughed and spat and opened my eyes.
And wished I hadn’t. I was propped up in a chair. Across from me was a desk—a big, dark, polished desk that had no business sitting in a leaky room in an abandoned warehouse—and behind the desk was the Haverlock himself.
I knew him, though I’d never joined him for a glass of sherry or a dinner with the Regent. The few half-dead I’d ever seen before had been the out-and-about variety. The half-dead who’d joined the Army had been the young ones, the ones not yet mad with bloodlust, not yet rendered insane by the very thing that kept them walking.
This half-dead was old. Old and mad and hungry, all dry ashen skin and flexible bones and fingers tipped with claws. His clothes would cost me a year’s work but they couldn’t hide the price he’d paid for a shoddy brand of immortality.
He looked into me with those dead white eyes and tiny black pupils.
My mouth went dry. The Haverlock lifted its corpse-black lips in a smile.
“Came to take my trophy,” it said, its voice a dry airy rustle. “Came to my House to steal.”
I wanted to say something, but found the words wouldn’t come.
“Brought Trolls against my House,” it said. “Brought Trolls and traitors. Did you find the head we left for you, Finder? Will it make your Troll friends happy?”
It giggled. And it reached forward, long black nails at the ends of longer white fingers.
Mama Hog’s bracelet moved on my arm. I jerked back, scooting the chair half a foot.
“Nowhere to run, Finder,” said the Haverlock. “Trolls can’t help you. Watch can’t help you. Friend Liam can’t help you. Did he try to warn you, when you found him? Did he tell you I knew of his treachery, knew of his plot?”
I wondered what time it was. Had I missed the twelfth bell? Was I still in the same warehouse?
The Haverlock saw. It smiled an open-mouthed smile, and where Liam’s mouth had looked almost normal the Haverlock had a headful of crooked, dirty yellow needles.
I bolted, cussed, fell. My ankle was tied to the desk. It wasn’t moving.
Somewhere—it sounded like below us—there was a loud crack, as of thick timbers breaking, and a thud. And then another blow shook the building, strong enough to start a slow rain of dust from the ceiling. And then, muffled but unmistakable, I heard a Troll’s war-roar.
“My Trolls,” I managed to say. “Tired of waiting.”
The Haverlock giggled, child-like. “They die, too,” he said. “We’re ready. Ready for two Trolls, ready for three, ready for ten.” He stood.
“I’ve only got three,” I said. “Three Trolls. At least one of them is a wand-waver. You ready for Troll magic, Old Bones?”
If the Haverlock heard or understood, he didn’t acknowledge me. He just strolled around the desk and came at me, yellow teeth bared, fingers twitching spasmodically.
Mama Hog’s bracelet moved again, spat a fist-sized rain of pale blue sparks. I felt a thousand little tickles, like it had grown feet and was trying to get away. I jerked up my arm.
Mama Hog’s bracelet squirted baby lightning at the half-dead. The Haverlock grinned and his cold, hard flesh touched mine and in an instant he had the bracelet in his gaunt, long-fingered hand. “Stupid little man,” he said, as the bracelet sizzled and glowed. “Foolish little man. You think this trinket can save you?”
He crushed it, flung it aside.
Something still moved on my arm. I chanced a glance and there it was—a long, thin critter like a centipede, but slimmer. It was fast. It scuttled up my shirt to my shoulder, coiled like a snake and launched itself at the Haverlock’s dead face.
You’d have thought I’d thrown a bucket of daylight. The Haverlock’s dead white eyes got wide and he batted the air with those claws and backpedaled so fast he tripped on the desk and went down flapping and kicking.
Then he shrieked, longer and louder and higher than any human ever had, ever would.
I bent down, found the rope around my foot. The knot was tight and hard. I yanked and heaved. The desk was heavy. It didn’t budge.
The Haverlock leaped to his feet. Dark oily spittle was running down his chin. I didn’t see the worm, and from the way he kept turning and looking I knew he didn’t either.
He glared at me, teeth bared, and bunched for a dive. I pulled so hard my shoe came off ahead of the rope.
The Haverlock dove. He broke the arm I raised, but then the wall behind us exploded and Mister Smith snatched the Haverlock up in his massive Troll hands and brought him down head-first on that polished ironwood desk-top.
And brought him down again, and again.
“Go now,” boomed Mister Smith. Down came the half-dead. Black fluid sprayed. “The Misters will see you safe.” The Haverlock still writhed and grappled.
Thunder rang out, right under my fundament, and light flared so bright below me I saw every crack between every board in the floor. Another crack and flash ripped through the warehouse, and a Troll laughed. Tiny wisps of smoke began to coil up and out between my feet.
I got up. My left arm hung limp and numb. Black dots were swimming across my vision. “We haven’t gotten what we came for,” I said.
“We go to House Haverlock,” said Mister Smith, between lifts and falls of the still-twitching Haverlock. “We search there.”
The room pitched and yawed like the deck of a troop ship.
“No need,” I heard myself say. “I know where your cousin’s head is.”
Mister Smith eyed me over the ruin of the eldest Haverlock, gave him another slam for good measure. “Are you well, Finder?” he said.
I laughed. Sizzles and roars under us spoke of Troll magics. More timbers burst, below, and the floor dropped several inches before catching. One of Mister Chin’s tame bubbles floated up through the floor, made a quick circuit of Mister Smith and I, and then sank back through the floor in search of paler prey.
I wobbled my way across tilting, popped floorboards to the other side of the desk.
On the right-hand side were six drawers, all too small to contain a Troll-head. On the left were four drawers—and a single enormous cabinet. A sane man might keep a keg of beer or a wastebasket or a barrel of snacks in it.
The thing Mister Smith was smearing all over the room hadn’t been sane for a long, long time.
I tried the big cabinet door. It wasn’t even locked.
I opened it, moved a cloth and there it was.
“When you’re done with him,” I said. “Help me lift this out. Need two arms, got one.”
Mister Smith grabbed Haverlock by either end and pulled. I turned my head until it was done.
The floor shook. The thunder rolled. I stood there blinking and gasping and sorting out storm-sounds from Troll battle magics. The Misters were making a mess. I hoped they were winning.
Mister Smith turned that desk around with two fingers. He looked down, sang something short in Troll and closed the drawer.
Then he turned those big owl eyes on me. “You have done as you said, Finder. I thank you. Here.”
Three lumps of gold appeared in his bloodied Troll paw.
Maybe the Troll nightstick around my neck joined with my newly acquired concussion to play tricks on my eyes. I didn’t see three fist-sized chunks of gold in Mister Smith’s four-fingered hand. I saw one of Mama Hog’s wear-worn cards. I blinked, and there it was again, turned over so I saw a bony finger, crooked and beckoning.
“Keep it,” I heard myself say. “No charge. No fee. Not this time. Can’t buy my soul, Mister Smith. Shame on you for trying.”
Then the floor buckled and fell and the last thing I remember about that night is Mister Smith smiling at me.